Lent: A time to return to God and be healed
by Sister Ann Rehrauer
Because we live in the 21st century, most of us will never see or experience Hansen’s Disease, commonly called “leprosy.” Like many illnesses that were once considered fatal, leprosy can now be cured or at least kept under control by modern medicine.
That was not the case at the time of Jesus, when a diagnosis of leprosy was literally a death sentence. The disease rotted the person’s flesh slowly until death finally arrived. But in addition to the grotesque physical effects, the seeming contagious nature of the disease and the lack of knowledge about it led to an imposed isolation of the person. Lepers were not permitted to live in the village, and as they moved from place to place, they were forced to carry a bell and cry “unclean” when others approached. This was to protect the rest of the community from the spread of the disease. As their flesh died gradually, so did their spirits from the isolation and lack of human contact and emotional support we all need to thrive. Family members could leave food and clothing for their loved ones outside the town, but couldn’t see or touch them.
The leper in today’s Gospel showed great courage as he approached Jesus and asked for healing: “If you want to – you can make me clean.” And Jesus’ response was equally remarkable. Not only did he express care for the man (“of course I want to”), but he reached out and accompanying the physical cure – he touched the man who had probably not experienced a human touch since the time of his diagnosis.
I reflected on why the Church might choose these readings as we begin the season of Lent this week. I’m not sure – but I noticed three possible connections:
- The Gospel is about the healing power of Jesus -- and Lent is a privileged time of healing as we turn from sin and begin again to live in fidelity to the Gospel.
- Second, the leper seeks healing for both his body and spirit – wanting to rejoin the community and well as having his flesh healed. During this time of repentance, we ask for forgiveness of sin and seek reconciliation with the Eucharistic community which has been harmed by our sinfulness.
- The third aspect I noticed was the role of the “Church.” The priests of Judaism declared lepers “unclean,” and later it was the priests who confirmed Jesus’ miracle of healing and welcomed the person back into life. Today the Church invites each of us to prayer, penance, and almsgiving and provides special access to the boundless mercy of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Whether we consider ourselves “leprous” because of the power or gravity of our sinfulness, or simply “lukewarm” because we’ve lost the first fervor of our baptism, or even if we’ve walked away for a while, or whether we are slowly building on the miracle of grace we have already received – in all these cases, Lent is an invitation to experience the healing touch of Jesus and the warm embrace of a God who has been waiting to say to each of us, “I have always loved you, and of course I want to heal you – welcome home.”